Lady Cobham has blasted the planned US takeover of the British defence company bearing her name – saying it puts the UK’s national security at risk and should be stopped by the Government.
The widow of Sir Michael Cobham, who built up the firm over 25 years – said the proposed £4billion takeover by private equity firm Advent International would place in jeopardy ‘important high-tech jobs’.
In her first major interview Lady Cobham, 76, spoke of her anguish over the ‘opportunistic’ bid for the family firm – and warned that it threatened the Royal Air Force’s access to Cobham’s mid-flight refuelling systems, which were vital during the Falklands war.
Outspoken: Lady Cobham, Nadine to her friends, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘The company has been built up over many, many years and it deserves to be protected by the Government’
Sources also warned that Cobham runs training exercises for the Royal Navy and RAF which are a key part of the UK’s war readiness.
In April, Cobham was the only non-military unit to take part in Exercise Joint Warrior, a two-week Nato exercise in which its jets provided threat simulation and even target practice for warships.
Cobham employs around 10,000 people worldwide, with around 1,700 based in Dorset.
Lady Cobham, Nadine to her friends, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘The company has been built up over many, many years and it deserves to be protected by the Government.
‘It’s an opportune moment for Advent to pounce and the reality is that Advent will break up Cobham and sell of its parts to the highest bidder. This may well include air-to-air refuelling, which is a real shocker.’
The company was founded in 1935 by Sir Alan Cobham, an aviation pioneer who is thought to have been the inspiration for the fictional fighter pilot Biggles.
He captured the public’s imagination in 1926 when he landed his plane on the River Thames and was knighted by George V that year.
Then in the 1940s he developed a means for fighter planes to connect to the refuelling hoses of tanker aircraft and continued to develop these systems.
His son, Sir Michael, succeeded him as chief executive in 1969 and oversaw a steady growth that led to the firm floating on the stock exchange in 1985.
History: The company was founded in 1935 by Sir Alan Cobham (pictured), an aviation pioneer who is thought to have been the inspiration for the fictional fighter pilot Biggles
The company has remained influential – with Cobham pilots in Falcon jets providing ‘operational readiness training’ to RAF Typhoon pilots in simulated mid-air battles.
Defence experts told The Mail on Sunday the Government could demand assurances from any new owners as part of a deal.
The US private equity firm’s bid has been backed by Cobham’s management but faces fierce opposition from the founding family who own 1.5 per cent of the company.
David Lockwood, Cobham’s chief executive, would make £6.4million from a sale to Advent. He was chief executive of British defence firm Laird until 2016. Laird was sold to Advent in March last year.
He spoke highly of Advent at the time, saying: ‘If you’re going to go into PE [private equity] mode then Advent is a good buyer. They invest and grow to make their model work rather than asset-strip.’
Advent has admitted in documents that 100 jobs are at risk at Cobham which generates around two thirds of its £1.9billion revenues from defence contracts in the UK and the US and makes parts for aircraft including the F35 fighter.
The rest of its income is generated from commercial contracts.
Advent’s proposed takeover took a hit last week when Lady Cobham wrote to business Secretary Andrea Leadsom and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, saying ‘I suggest there are real risks in this takeover to UK security and to important high-tech jobs and I hope that you will feel able to give your attention to the repercussions of this unwelcome situation.’
Cobham’s largest shareholder, Silchester International, which owns 12 per cent, has also expressed concerns. It said the price was too low and management should seek a different offer.
Defence analyst Howard Wheeldon said: ‘The Government could ask the new owners for a binding commitment. I think that, due to certain aspects of what Cobham does for the MoD, the Government is bound to ask for assurances from Advent.’
An intervention would follow the lead set by former business Minister Greg Clark who intervened in the takeover of engineering company GKN by Melrose last year.
His department stipulated that Melrose could not sell GKN to an overseas buyer for five years, alongside several other conditions.
Advent has promised to keep Cobham’s UK and US headquarters in place if the deal goes through. It also promised to maintain the current level of investment in research and development and in Cobham’s production sites.
But Lady Cobham said she would ‘absolutely not’ accept any assurances from Advent. ‘I don’t think it would be worth the paper it’s written on,’ she said.
A Government spokesperson said: ‘While this is a commercial matter for the companies involved, we are closely monitoring the transaction.’
Advent and Cobham declined to comment.